Monthly Archives: November 2014

I think if I could choose a profession in the Digital History world, I would be a podcaster. A close second would be a YouTuber, but podcasting you can do in your pajamas.

Look at me, referencing two weeks of topics at once.
Look at me, referencing two weeks of topics at once.

Podcast researcher Todd Cochrane has declared that “Podcasts are in vogue.” I have been a poscast listener since I got my first generation iPod Touch in 2007, though my podcasting experience usually occurred at 3am when I couldn’t sleep, and I would search for keywords of things that might entertain me until I could fall asleep. My download to listen ratio was severely out of balance.

While podcasts had indeed become less popular, I’m still not sure if “in vogue” accurately describes podcasts today, but I also think that sort of thing is difficult to gauge. Unlike other entertainment media, podcasts are supremely personal. This is facilitated by the medium that you play a podcast on, usually your smart phone. No one can hear what geeky podcast you’re listening to. Also, podcasts are often (but not always) not a visual medium. It’s hard to share anything on Facebook that doesn’t have a catchy photo with it. Because of this, I don’t know of any friends who listen to podcasts. On Facebook, one other friend likes the one podcast I listen to with any regularity.

Cecilia King believes that a renaissance in podcasting has begun thanks to advertising. “The industry has withstood the disruption that the Internet wrought on newspapers and TV, partly in thanks to an enormous audience of commuters trapped in cars.” The added intimacy of the relationship the listener imposes onto podcaster allows the podcast to advertise products more effectively. SquareSpace and Audible have taken full advantage of this trusting intimacy. Audible, I get. If you like listening to people talk while you’re driving, you might like listening to these other people talk while you drive. But SquareSpace is less clear. Just because I like listening to a podcast doesn’t mean I’m looking to build a website, but so many podcasts seem to advertise SquareSpace.

As Ian Forty points out, “having nothing to say doesn’t stop most podcasts from existing.” And that is the biggest problem with Podcasts, YouTube channels, blogs and any other unregulated media platforms available online. Anyone can create a podcast and publish it, with minimal equipment and technical knowledge. On the surface this seems great because people can reach out and find others interested in their obscure hobby, but it also leaves the field open to a lot of poor quality shows and misinformation. Dr Larry Cebula remarks on a case of a historical podcast where the information was outdated and mildly racist, but admits that “the real culprit here–the historical profession, which has been slow to adopt new technologies and has left the digital path open to well-meaning but untrained amateurs,” which is an ongoing theme I’ve noticed as historians try to make sense of this frightening digital world.

podcast-cartoon

Despite the hurdles to becoming a successful podcaster, I still feel that I would find a great deal of satisfaction with this art form. Before podcasts, EWU professir emeritus Tom Mullin used to have a weekly special on KEWU where he would have a 3-5 monologue about his life growing up in rural Wyoming. It was very well recieved, and it’s a shame they were broadcast before the popularity of digital media, and so are not available online. But I would love to do something like that, or like the Memory Palace podcast for a living.

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As we’ve discussed before, data preservation is crucial. It can seem like a daunting task, one where software obsolescence is breathing down your neck, and threats to physical data loom large over our fragile photos and documents with every spark, and even patron’s greasy fingers.

So with the decision to preserve your data at the front of your mind, where do you begin? Do you digitize everything? How long will your data last once it’s digitized? Forever, right?

Maybe it’s time for you to go back to “How does a computer ‘work?’

You may have noticed that electronics advance at a rate faster than you can buy them. It’s not just your iPhone 5 that is already useless. The software used to run your apps, as well as seemingly simpler programs that read your photos and your documents are quickly becoming lost to the ages.

More importantly than your insignificant personal data (because no one cares about pictures of your cat, or even the research you started years ago on the book you swear you’re going to finish), the publics‘s data must be preserved. Unfortunately, many of today’s public documentation is “born digital,” meaning that no paper copy of your records has ever existed.

No One Cares.
No One Cares.

Washington State archivist Jerry Handfield believes that public records belong “to the people.” As Jerome P McDonough poignantly put it, “If we can’t keep today’s information alive for future generations, we will lose a lot of our culture.”

We can go ahead and lose this one.
We can go ahead and lose this one.  

The Washington State Archives has attempted to prevent this egregious loss of culture by building their archives deep underground in a bomb shelter. The hope here is to prevent the loss of information in even the most extreme emergencies. But what is the everyday historian to do?

The answer is clearly for every historian to build a bomb shelter in their back yard to house their research. And probably to store at least once archivist to interpret your work to our future overlords.

 

The History of Humanities Computing is the introductory chapter by Susan Hockey in another outdated text book that includes such gems as, “How does a computer ‘work?'” and the mechanical components in a keyboard. The site uses frames, which although useful for a book format, severely dates it. A more modern approach would be drop down flash menus for the chapters or at least hidden frames. Hockey introduces us to several early computerized humanities projects of varying degrees of usefulness.

I also took the time to look at the chapter on film studies to see what projects were discussed. I was disappointed at the primitiveness of the project and ultimately, how little they meant. As one former EWU film professor explained to me once, “if you come up with one idiot program, have you arbitrarily contributed anything?” Being able to scroll through screen shots is a very limited advantage, and did little, I feel, to advance the study of film as an art. Computers have contributed innumerable tools to the filmmaking process, but if this book is an indication, it has given decidedly fewer tools to the film critic.

A slightly more useful digital humanities project was the Newcastle map project, which used old maps and paintings to recreate the town of Newcastle and chart some of its layout changes over time. While one may once again wonder, “is this useful?” the townspeople themselves seem delighted. “We are lucky to have so much information about our beautiful town,” remarks one citizen. It’s worth remembering that small digital projects have as much ability to delight as larger ones, and we should still be willing to help with projects even if we feel we won’t reach a large audience.

This was of course not the first attempt at the visualization of data. This honor was given to William Playfair in 1786, with his invention of the modern chart. The popularity of visual data rose slowly through the centuries until, as Shawn Allen points out, “people are suddenly interested in data” [data being defined as “information abstracted in schematic form.”]. Graphs and charts remained the most common method of visualizing data until very recently.

Today, visual data enjoys its popularity in the form of the infographic. Infographics have surged probably due to the ease of making them thanks to tools such as Photoshop and programs that allow you to convert your drawing to digital form more easily, and also due to the internet becoming more graphic heavy thanks to faster than ever download speeds. While some infographics, such as the Oatmeal’s infographic on the Mantis Shrimp or the website Daily Infographic, which posts a new infographic each day are harmless and innocuous, others should come with “Spoiler Alert” warnings by the links, because some of us are right in the goddamn middle of season 3 of the Walking Dead on Netflix and this could have ruined a lot for those people.

Fortunately it didn’t. Because if it had, I would have been forced to find out what you love and spoil the hell out of it.

Rosebud is the sled.

Oral history can be a useful tool in a historian’s search for truth. But is oral history as trustworthy as one would hope?

Oral history has made great improvement since its beginnings as simply transcribed accounts of events, to audio recordings of interviews and accounts, and today with video technology. But with these advances, one thing has stayed the same: the stories are still being told by humans, and humans are fallible.

History Matters brings up the point that “Early interviewing projects at Columbia and elsewhere tended to focus on the lives of the “elite”–leaders in business, the professions, politics, and social life. But oral history’s scope widened in the 1960s and 1970s in response to both the social movements of the period and historians’ growing interest in the experiences of ‘nonelites.’” Technological advances have made it easier to document the lives of nonelites. But have these advances gotten us any closer to the truth?

Elizabeth Loftus has spent years studying the human memory and its flaws. She has discovered that our memories aren’t as concrete and infallible as we would hope. The words we use in the questions we ask can influence how a subject will not only answer, but how they will remember an event.

 

So what can be done to ensure accurate portrayals of events in the past? Questions for an interview must be carefully worded so we do not influence the answers, regardless of our own hypothesis.  It’s also worth noting that as technology has improved, from simple, transcribed interviews, to audio recordings, to film, subjects may become increasingly self conscious. People have always wanted to protect their own interests, but when your face is going to be tied to your words, you’re going to be even more careful about what you say. You may say what you think the interviewer wants to hear.

Lastly, the question on transcription and editing come into play. As we continue to study the nonelites, we will run into subjects who are possibly not the most adept with our own language. The View From The Bottom Rail transcribes the freedpeople’s words, but it leaves them sounding ignorant, including spelling words like “can” and “kin.” I think this goes beyond a search for truth into what is a mockery of these people. But sometimes it’s not that obvious. Sometimes there are small grammatical errors and factual mistakes. How should we as the historian deal with those issues? If you correct them during the interview, they may become more closed to you because you are talking to them as if they are uneducated, or as if you think you know the event better than they do. If you say nothing but change their words later, you can be accused of falsifying documents, something no historian should ever get caught doing. If you add a small note that some items are wrong, you might risk losing future interviews.

I don’t really have a solution for this last problem. But I think it’s something we have to think about when we set out to document the elites and nonelites alike.